Campus & Community

Harvard works to improve foreign student visa system

3 min read

Will pay administrative fees related to visa screening process

Concerned about a recent trend that has seen a decline in the number of international students studying in the United States, Harvard University continues to work to smooth the road for those students, who in recent years have faced tougher screenings and longer waits to enter the United States.

The University’s latest move will be to pick up the new $100-per-head user fee levied on each new student visa beginning Sept. 1. The fee is part of the law establishing SEVIS, the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, a computerized system designed to keep records on visa applications of all international students and scholars.

“International students are an essential part of the fabric of our community. As we look ahead, Harvard’s success requires that we continue to attract the very best students from the four corners of the world. For many reasons, including changes to the visa system since September 11th, our task has become more challenging in recent years. Our decision to pay the SEVIS fee is designed to underscore our commitment to international students,” said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.

Summers has been an advocate for international students during his presidency. He maintains that the United States’ security systems enacted in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks need not hinder legitimate international students from considering study in the United States.

Summers wrote several federal officials last spring, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, last spring offering to help find ways to streamline post 9/11 safeguards, while still assuring higher levels of national security. Some suggestions from Harvard and other universities have been adopted and, together with other reforms, appear to be having a positive effect.

In those letters, Summers cited recent statistics from the Council of Graduate Schools showing that 90 percent of schools surveyed experienced a decline in graduate school applications from international students in the last academic year.

That trend was reflected at Harvard, where each of the University’s nine faculties reported a sharp drop in applications from international students, with applications from Chinese students alone falling as much as 40 percent in some graduate programs.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning C. Stewart Verdery Jr. visited Harvard Tuesday (Oct. 19) to talk with administrators who deal with international students. Verdery said the process has been getting smoother, with the wait for a visa for scientists and scholars reduced from three months to three weeks. He said the department has been working with higher education officials, including those at Harvard, and that the criticism has been helpful.

“We’ve heard the message loud and clear from the university community of the need to keep in mind the impact our security programs have on scholarship,” Verdery said.

Verdery said the department understands that the goals of Homeland Security and higher education dovetail, since international students who return home to leading positions in their countries will understand the United States far better after having studied here.

The department’s ultimate goal, Verdery said, is to have a visa process that is thorough, but open and efficient, so that international visitors know how long visa processing will take and can build that time into their travel plans. The University’s experience this year suggests that the visa process has improved, with shorter turnaround times and greater communication between the government and higher education institutions.